Red Squirrel Press, 2013  £4.00Sphinx seven and a half striper

Reviewed by Christie Williamson, Fiona Moore and Helena Nelson

Christie Williamson:
How to be Late from Matthew Griffiths contains fifteen poems over 28 pages, ranging from sprawling, fantastically surreal poems like ‘Werewolves’ and ‘The Saucers of London’ to the taught three liner ‘In the Driveway of the College of Law’ which closes the book.

Whilst thematically and formally the book is diverse, Griffiths’ style is consistently beguiling. With a flair for imagery he gives us the top of a tub of spreadable butter as “a neat, round kiss/beneath its greaseproof tongue” and an LP as a “full, black moon”.

The back cover tells us that Griffiths is completing a PhD on the poetics of climate change, and that he is the author of The Weather on Versimmon, a science fiction novel. The works in this pamphlet suggest Griffiths is an inquiring author: he takes an everyday day object, such as a tie in ‘The Knot’ or a pair of houses in ‘Semi’, and observes them from different angles to present a coherent insight into the varying aspects of their nature.

Red Squirrel Press has brought us an original nugget of well written, well balanced poetry. With a heady mix of the (seemingly) straightforward and the surreal, the everyday and the out of this world, How to be Late will yield something different every time you open it. Matthew Griffiths has clearly been honing his craft for some time, taking the effort to carry his poems that extra mile over and above the obvious.

It also belongs to that special category of poetry book which rewards being read alongside a good dictionary and encyclopedia. In ‘Heliophobic aubade’ for example, I might have been able to figure out what ‘heliophobia’ was. I probably should have known what an ‘aubade’ was too (n. 1. A song or instrumental composition concerning, accompanying, or evoking daybreak. 2. A poem or song of or about lovers separating at dawn) – much as I should have known about this accomplished and rewarding body of work.

I do now though.  Better late than never.     

Fiona Moore:
These poems cover a range: variously metaphysical, anecdotal, relationship, sci-fi. For me, the ones that work best have slipped into a fairly traditional space and occupied it. Sometimes this process involves a formal structure, as in ‘The Knot’, about different perspectives on a tie, which ends charmingly:

   Well, the columnist breezes, it’s a look
that depends on the centring inches of black
to pin you to time like the hands do the face of a clock.
   Oh-hoo, laughs the analyst, it’s a noose

[ . . .]
   But your fingers whisper, Knot, what knot?
And each buttonhole sighs as you open my shirt. 

The sci-fi / fantasy poems are intriguing, but their wealth of detail doesn’t convince me of their truth, in the sense that all good poems are true, however fantastical. I love the opening line of ‘Werewolves’ – “Proletariat of the supernatural!” But the ensuing high drama, though ballad-rhymed, falls a bit flat. People don’t say their words, but mutter or belch them (see also ‘The Knot’ above, though it works for fingers and buttonhole). Similarly, ‘The Saucers of London’, a futuristic nightmare, doesn’t scare me with its jumping-around narrative and strained description. But this may have to do with my lack of interest in sci-fi.

Some of the metaphors in this book don’t work (for me), for example, a horse’s groomed flank like “a gull cleaned of oil by a volunteer”. But then ‘Cod Philosophy’ begins, simply:

Ice drops as quickly as any shoal
when light punches a hole through water.

And there’s a whole poem called ‘The Metaphor’, which takes an idea and works on it, with simple clarity:

We scale the hill. It is an autumn hill.
A true hill. The hill is a metaphor.

[ . . . ]
                         there is
A pull in your heart, meaning both
Kinds of your heart, but the catch
In your breath is a physical one.
I feel it in my unthere heart.

Helena Nelson:
Matthew Griffiths is good. From ‘The Knot’, a tenderly flirtacious thirteener, to ‘Claustrophilia’, which shuts the reader into the tiny space of a poem with exquisite precision, he knows the business.

I loved ‘The Metaphor’. It is playful and exact: it pursues the way almost everything in our lives is both real and a representation of something else:

We scale the hill. It is an autumn hill.
A true hill. The hill is a metaphor.

Perhaps this is not in itself a new idea, though no less fascinating for that. But by the end, he has taken the reader somewhere unexpected, and this is one of the skills of this poet. He entertains, he is pleasurable to read, he practises the best tricks of formal and informal structuring, but he is also surprising, so much so that I feel averse to quoting my favourite bits in case I give something away -- otherwise, the end of ‘Cod Philosophy’ would have found its way into this review.

But perhaps I can risk a bit from ‘The marketing director outlines his strategy for spreadable butter substitutes’, the opening poem. From the title alone you can see this is fun, but it is more than just a delight. It is completely and vividly visual:

It must bear the scrape of knives
like furrows, in which will be scattered
seedy crumbs, flakes of ashed toast,
a fruit dot of marmalade.

The poet is masterful with his choices and his control. Listen, for example, to the difference in sound between “let us / draw the stuck knife from it” and “the landscape’s creamy crevasse / must close”. This marketing director is worth his salt. He has an eye but he also has an ear.

There’s a huge amount going on in this collection. Only 15 poems but the content is rich. This is a new arrival worthy of note.